Big Thief first came to attention in 2016 when they released Masterpiece, their aptly named debut album, which many critics named as one of the year’s finest. A year later, give or take a week or two, Big Thief have released their brilliant follow-up, Capacity. Adrianne Lenker’s powerful, emotionally complex songs take the band into challenging, sometimes dangerous terrain this time around, and the results are cathartic, both for the singer and the listener. Capacity is an important album and their real masterpiece.
In the opening track, “Pretty Things”, Lenker seeks to redefine and reconcile femininity and masculinity. For her, there is nothing dainty or weak about feminine energy, just as she believes masculine energy can be soft and pliable. That last point is even illustrated on the album cover: a photo of Lenker’s uncle, Adam, at the age of 14, gently cradling a baby.
Don’t take me for a fool
There’s a woman inside of me
There’s one inside of you, too.
“Pretty Things” is virtually a live, solo performance by Lenker as she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, though the chorus is augmented with some subtle double-tracking by the singer. Halfway through her performance you can hear some noisy clattering from outside the studio – my guess is that it is a drum kit being knocked over in the corridor – but rather than do another take the band left it in, considering the “noise solo” a happy accident.
A more deliberate noise solo begins track two, “Shark Smile”. Guitarist Buck Meek and drummer James Krivchenia introduce the song with a brief “free jam”, a kind of musical pile-up, before Lenker’s rhythm guitar takes over and the whole band settle into a relaxed, chugging groove. Lenker sings about two giddy lovers on a fateful road trip that has echoes of Thelma and Louise. When the narrator steals a kiss from the song’s subject, Evelyn, it precipitates disaster. Meek’s trebly, angular guitar chops and screeches, like a siren or a skidding car in the distance, hinting at the crunch of metal on metal. “Shark Smile”, though partially fictional, was inspired by a series of fatal accidents among Lenker’s circle of friends.
I got the chance to interview Lenker last week, along with Meek. They were both in the tour van heading to a gig, a less than ideal environment to discuss such deeply personal songs. I asked them what had changed between albums. “I think it is naturally a wider perspective,” Lenker said. “So it encompasses a more intricate view of some of the things that I was chewing on in the songs on Masterpiece. I can see the whole a little bit more. I don’t know: it’s just like getting a layer deeper, is what it feels like.” Meek thought the weather outside the studio had seeped into their music. “We made it over the course of a month in a really snowy, winter kind of wonderland in upstate New York,” he said. “And everything was really calm and focused.”
“Shark Smile” puts a romantic spin on a tragedy and “Pretty Things” talks frankly about sexuality with intimations of coercion. The next three songs, “Capacity”, “Watering” and “Coma”, grapple with much darker themes.
Lenker’s distorted rhythm guitar leads the band into the album’s title track. It’s a slow grinder in the manner of Crazy Horse or The Jesus and Mary Chain, minus the bombast. There’s always a lightness of touch and a sense of delicacy in Big Thief’s music. Feminine energy. The lyrics start out as a fantasy of flight and freedom before crashing to earth in the chorus, with the singer trapped, powerless and possibly incapacitated.
Do what you want with me
Lost in your captivity
For make-believing everything
Is really hanging on.
This could also be describing an ecstatic experience, but the verse that follows has an insidious undertone. Lenker describes the aftermath of a drunken party, feeling “Totally vacant / Everyone gone from their bodies”, and her chorus lyrics sound like a depiction of abuse in this context.
If abuse isn’t spelled out categorically in “Capacity” it certainly is in “Watering”, a harrowing tale that pulls no punches.
He cut off my oxygen
And my eyes were watering
As he tore into my skin
Like a lion
I knew it was poison
As he filled me to the brim
And my blood was dripping
Like a lamb
The singer makes an astounding switch in the final verse of “Watering”, taking the viewpoint of the rapist. Here, she reveals the delusional, obsessive thoughts of this destructive man. Lenker’s lyrics are at odds with her sombre melody and the hauntingly beautiful accompaniment. Even the wails of the backing vocals are bewitching. The stoicism of the music in the face of such horror is jarring, as if it were some kind of coping mechanism.
The next song adds weight to that notion. “Coma” details the dissociation a victim experiences during a violent act, and the slow recovery from that state. Set to another pretty melody, she sings, “You won’t recognise your house / Will you recognise the iris of the body?”, becoming a kind of lullaby as it fades away softly. Lenker has said that “Coma” and “Watering” were written as one piece and that is how they are presented here.
We’re five songs into the album at this point and a shift happens: spirits are mostly lifted from here onwards, the beautiful music unalloyed by savagery. Lenker told me the way they sequenced the songs was a conscious choice. “I feel like the release that you get from the second half of the record is so much more impactful when the tension and the hard stuff is felt first,” she said. “That progression felt better than starting out light and sort of building into… that subject matter. That content is really heavy and I didn’t really want to leave the listener with those things, but I also just thought it was important to address those things right off the bat.”
“Great White Shark” is dreamy and lovely, with whimsical lyrics set to jazzy sixth and diminished chords. With the change of mood comes a change of time signature. Mostly in 6/8 time, “Great White Shark” is interspersed with odd bars of 3/8 here and there, though it all flows seamlessly. There are more exotic time signatures elsewhere on the record: “Objects” and “Haley” both feature a plethora of oddly timed bars, juggling 6/4, 2/4 and 5/4, and “Coma” begins in 5/4 before ending in waltz time. The genius of Lenker’s songwriting and her band’s arrangements is that these idiosyncratic shifts in the beat always sound effortless and natural rather than ostentatious and laboured. It was only after many listens that I even noticed this rhythmic legerdemain was there.
The album concludes with “Black Diamonds”, a gentle song that Lenker described to me as “a form of embrace”. Its lyrics look for a balance between restless questioning and settled commitment. Lenker and Meek were married a year ago, so it’s tempting to look at this song as a portrait of their relationship.
The most distinctive characteristic of Big Thief’s music is its sense of restraint; nothing is ever gratuitous. Masterpiece had been recorded in just 12 days in a makeshift studio – a cabin, actually – but for Capacity the band had the luxury of a month in a proper recording studio. Meek told me, “Our intention was to just record the sounds as naturally as possible and to use the least amount of post-production – to just try to capture the raw, unaltered sounds.” Meek said that Andrew Sarlo, the producer of both albums, also took a minimalist approach. “If an overdub seemed contrived or like decoration, it was to be removed to only keep the most important, structural things.”
Song seven, “Mythological Beauty”, feels like the central pillar of the album, thematically and musically. Lenker relates childhood memories of her mother, who separated from her father when the singer was 12. As the eldest, Lenker stayed with her father but her brother and sister went with her mother.
If you wanna leave
You just have to say
You’re all caught up inside
But you know the way.
In the song, Lenker releases her mother from any guilt she might have felt about the break-up, though the songwriter demurred when I suggested this must have been a traumatic time for her as a child. “It was actually pretty peaceful and a good thing, a healthy thing,” she said. “‘Mythological Beauty’ is sort of a montage, clipping together these little pieces of things that help me understand my womanhood, and the mother and child within me.” In the final verse, Lenker again switches perspective, this time swapping places with her mother. In the song she then grants young Adrianne permission to leave, to grow into her own life.
Every song Lenker writes is semi-autobiographical but she likes to distance herself by inhabiting a variety of characters and by cloaking everything in metaphor. She told me she wants other people to bring their own experiences to the songs and, in so doing, discover their own truths. This also leaves room for her own meaning to shift. “Masterpiece songs mean something very different to me now than they did when I wrote them,” she said. “But they were intentionally made into these hollowed-out vessels, so I guess I anticipate my own change. I don’t really like to use language that confines me or makes it too real, stuck in one meaning.”
In fact, when I quizzed her about the specific meaning of one of her poetic images – the line “The needle stopped the kicking” in the song “Mary” – she became almost exasperated. “I think it is important in these songs to recognise that there’s a difference between the music and the musicians. There’s personal stuff in the songs but … I would invite the listener to draw something from their own lives, to draw strength and wisdom or questions or whatever it is, you know … But really digging into the meat of the literal happenings in my life and me as a person isn’t where the magic is. That’s not where it’s stored.”
MUSIC Jimmy Webb
Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane, June 24
Melbourne Recital Hall, June 27
City Recital Hall, Sydney, June 29
State Theatre, Perth, July 1
CULTURE An Evening with Dr Jane Goodall
The Courier-Mail Piazza, Brisbane, June 18
Horden Pavilion, Sydney, until June 25
PHOTOGRAPHY World Press Photo 17
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, until June 25
VISUAL ART Waldemar Kolbusz: Bonanza
Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne, June 20-July 15
MULTIMEDIA Chinese Whispers and Other Stories
Blindside, Melbourne, June 21-July 8
VISUAL ART Stacey Korfiatis: Threshold
Gallery Project Space, Melbourne, until July 1
COMEDY Roulston & Young
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, June 20-25
VISUAL ART Sarah Goffman: I am a 3D Printer
Wollongong Art Gallery, until June 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2017 as "Scene stealers".
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